EAU CLAIRE, WIS. — Things went so well at the inaugural Eaux Claires Music & Art Festival this past weekend, the event’s headliner and ringleader Justin Vernon cried. The late-night, body-moving dance party with Boys Noize culminated in a wicked, tent-moving thunderstorm. And one of indie rock’s biggest haters of music fests, Sufjan Stevens, opened up about his fear of getting Lyme disease or an STD there.
No, really, a good time was had by all.
Set on lush green bluffs above a scenic bend in the Chippewa River, Eaux Claires felt like a turned corner. Not only has the Upper Midwest finally landed a hip rock fest that can contend on a national level, it landed one that seemed uniquely Upper Midwestern.
Vernon is the guy whose willpower made Eaux Claires a reality, and whose star power attracted 22,000 festivalgoers to the woodsy farmland town of 65,000. The Grammy-winning singer/songwriter of Bon Iver fame and Eau Claire heritage — he famously recorded his first album in a hunting cabin north of town — dreamed up the festival more than two years ago and finished it off just before midnight Saturday.
Performing with the Big Dipper glowing brightly overhead and fans listening reverentially at his feet — it seriously felt more like a church service than the finale of a big summer rock fest — Vernon’s first Bon Iver performance in more than three years summed up the festival: inspired, collaborative, warmly spirited, a tad mushy at times and surprisingly flawless considering the untried aspects of it all.
“I’m deeply humbled,” Vernon said, wiping away tears in the fest’s waning minutes.
A friend and fellow indie-folk hero of Vernon’s from Sweden, the Tallest Man on Earth singer Kristian Matsson, summed up the two-day music marathon this way backstage: “There’s a lot of men in their 30s hugging each other.”
On stage Friday night during a headlining performance that was as rough as Bon Iver’s was sharp, the National’s singer Matt Berninger also remarked, “So many sweaty men hugging each other.” That came after guest appearances by both Vernon and Stevens with Berninger’s band, whose guitarist Aaron Dessner co-curated Eaux Claires with Vernon.
Fans seemed to greet the festival with open arms. Aside from long concession lines, unusually high humidity, a few performers who also seemed way too high and that early Saturday morning thunderstorm, attendees had little to complain about.
“It’s the best-run festival I’ve been to, and the lineup was brilliantly curated,” raved Stefan Kuhl, 26, of Minneapolis, whose group all crammed in an Eau Claire friend’s basement for the weekend. “We’re already making plans to come back next year.”
“Seeing Sufjan join the National and things like that really made it feel special,” said Beth Kalin of Minneapolis, a vet of Lollapalooza and other festivals who only felt let down by the art installations intended to help set Eaux Claires apart. “They built up the hype so much, maybe my expectations were too high.”
The unique touches included psychedelically lit wooded trails and a trio of large dome tents with oddball features inside, including one where Minneapolis rapper Astronautalis manned a confession booth for concertgoers to unburden their sins. They also sweated off a few pounds waiting in line for it.
The most unique trait of the festival was the experimental nature of its musical performances. The musicians messed around with each other all weekend. They toyed with the locations and structures of their sets, too.
Performances by sweet-voiced Vermont strummer Sam Amidon and Duluth’s reverberating Retribution Gospel Choir took place inside another dome tent behind a see-through film screen with amplification only heard via headphones passed out to fans. The sibling members of the National and the Icelandic band Múm also led a vintage vaudeville-style acoustic show on a log stage filled with optical illusions.
As for the conventional big stages, you never knew who was going to show up with whom.
Among the most charming collaborations during the festival’s 60 or so sets: beloved Texas melody choppers Spoon brought out Minnesota’s Har Mar Superstar to dance along to his own shout-out in their song “Small Stakes”; ambient folkie S. Carey enlisted the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble for a full-scale orchestral performance; another Eau Claire native, Phil Cook, brought out the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray for a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s small-town-goading classic “Lodi”; and the Tallest Man on Earth, Hiss Golden Messenger, Stevens and more all enlisted horn accompaniment from members of the No BS! Brass Band, who also fit in their own series of parade performances roaming through the festival grounds.
Vernon followed the Eaux Claires collaborative guidelines in Bon Iver’s set, too. He used the singing British sisters of the Staves for haunting harmonies in show opener “Heavenly Father” and several other tunes; the Dessner brothers of the National for extra guitar in “Babys”; Aero Flynn frontman Josh Scott to help sing “Blindsided”; New York new music ensemble yMusic for string and woodwinds support in “Towers,”and yep, the No BS! crew to blow through “For Emma.”
“The best thing we can all count on is friendship,” Vernon said amid the cavalcade of indie stars, summing up the mantra of his festival.
To paraphrase another famous closing line, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.